If you’re ever in a room with Buff, it’s hard to miss him. His hair’s unusual, sometimes colorful, and he’s generally got his head cocked back, laughing at something. The Hawaiian born artist loves Japanese culture, the color pink, ice cream, and heavy metal. And if you couldn’t guess that by looking at his art, you’re probably pretty daft. To find out how one can live in such a happy fantasy world, read on...
How many careers have you had? What is your current title?
I used to work as an Art Director/Creative Director in the magazine world, but now I’m an Artist. Sometimes I do design work.
What project will you be working on next?
My next big project is my show at Corey Helford Gallery, opening on September 5th.
Your house is burning down. What one possession (aside from human/ animal life) would you grab on the way out?
Probably my computer.
When and how did we meet?
We met through Michelle at that very small Beautiful Losers screening.
Traditional graffiti is ephemeral. You paint with the understanding that your work will eventually get painted over by other artists or the authorities. Is this where the origin of your name, Buff Monster, comes from?
Having made a transition to fine art, why not use your real name? How many people actually know your real name?
When I first started doing gallery shows, I did use my real name, but then I started to think if that really was the best way. People knew the character and they knew the name Buff Monster, so it seemed that that was the best way to go. And then when I went on tour in 2006, the tour manager would introduce me (as my real name) along with everyone else on tour to the organizers and they would always have this question: "Okay, but where is Buff Monster?" So for simplicity sake, I just told the tour manager to introduce me as Buff. It's just easier. And it's really not that hard to find my real name.
What was the tour in 2006?
Where in Hawaii were you raised?
I was born and raised in Honolulu.
So did you go to Punahou or Iolani?
I went to Punahou!
Hah! Same as President Obama. My college roommates were both from Honolulu and all things Sanrio heavily affected them. Is Hawaii where you were first exposed to Japanese culture (both kawaii and kaiju)?
Japanese culture has a really big influence on local (Hawaiian) culture. Obviously there is a real big Japanese population in Hawaii. Sanrio and all that was always around in elementary school. I guess it was so ubiquitous that I didn't really pay much attention to it. It's really been in recent years that I've embraced it wholeheartedly. Kaiju is a pretty new passion as well.
Hawaii is a great place. It was my home for the first 18 years of my life. There are so many great things about Hawaii, but there are so many no-so-great things too. The first is the pervasive racism and localism. I grew up as a minority. Albeit, the most hated minority. I don't have any really dramatic stories or incidents because I grew up middle class and lived in good neighborhoods. But it was all too obvious where we could go to feel not so welcomed. The second big issue with Hawaii is that it is literally a rock in the middle of the ocean. It is so slow and disconnected from everything. I know what that's like, that's why I now live right in the middle of Hollywood; the total opposite of Hawaii.
LA's huge. Why Hollywood?
We studied LA a lot in college. And the history of LA is essentially the history of Hollywood. There are a lot of academic reasons why Hollywood inspires my paintings, but other than that, I just like living here. I basically have this little oasis in the midst of all this craziness. I like being able to stay home all day, alone, working and then I have an endless supply of bars and restaurants within walking distance. I have three post offices in walking distance. I could go on and on. I got it all right here. So even though long lonely days of painting lead me to feel really disconnected, I'm still kinda connected.
Tell me more about your time at Helio Magazine. You say you worked in magazines for seven years. How'd you start in this industry? How'd you become Creative Director?
When I was in college, I interned at one of the nation's largest magazine companies. I think they were called emap USA back then (they've been sold and resold so many times since). I was an art intern at Hot Rod and Super Street magazines. I did that for a while, then when I graduated, I interviewed at the same company to be the Assistant Art Director of Motor Trend, and of Motorcyclist and Dirt Rider. I chose the latter. I did that for about three years, along the way becoming the Art Director of ATV Rider. Then I watched Office Space and quit shortly thereafter. Then I became the Creative Director of a small electronic music magazine called BPM. That was a dream job, at least at first. I learned a whole lot and did a whole lot in my nearly two years there. I quit to go on the afore-mentioned tour. And right about that same time, I started working on the Helio Magazine. We did a solid seven issues before Helio didn't want to spend the money anymore. I like magazines. I wonder if I'll ever work on one again.
I loved working in magazines too. I think it was the ever-changing topics and that you could reboot with every new issue. It's also the place where I met the most creative people.
I really think magazines are a dying medium though… unless you're National Geographic. Information moves so quickly now. How has social media and technology helped what you do? Why add a twitter feed to your website? Any anecdotal stories worth telling?
Well I love working on magazines, and I quite enjoy reading them, but I really love to READ BOOKS. Books are amazing. And I think we've already seen some art magazines feel more like books... but back to technology. I can't even imagine getting to this place without a website. Twitter is new and I enjoy it. I try to be worth following on there. I don't think it's really helped my career at all, but it's nice part of the whole experience. I don't know what else to say.
I think people know you work a lot and pretty determined to finish your projects. You have a lot of output. And hey, if you follow your own twitter stream it looks like you're always working!
Yeah, if I’m not twittering, I’m working. And if I’m twittering, I'm taking a momentary break from working.
I think maybe you're getting your money's worth from Punahou still!
Good point! And I don't have well-paid assistants like some of our friends have.
Speaking about other artists who work hard... You cite Takashi Murakami, Shepard Fairey, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring as artists who are heroes to you. It is the empires that they've built for themselves that inspire you? What is it about the high-low art spectrum that interests you so much? Is it because you started on the street but have moved to the galleries? Or are you just trying to get your money's worth from your USC Business Administration and Fine Art degree?
Well, I use a very limited color palette because the goal is to distill the expression down to its finest form. Along with that, to have the finest distillation of expression have the largest impact on your audience, that's amazing. That's the goal. So I view their empires as the logical progression of their amazing ability to affect those around them. Moreover, the true test of that is if laymen and scholars both find the expression (read: the art) fulfilling, rewarding or thought provoking. My first college art professor said, "Art is a shared experience." And I think that the more people that can share in the experience, the better the art is. That's what I admire about those guys... I'm constantly concerned about making better art. Yeah, and I love the business side of things too.
Let's talk about your "limited color palette". Brazilian artists, Os Gemeos are known for a specific shade of yellow they paint with. You are known for your pinks. You've explained in previous interviews the power of pink. Tell me something about pink that's not in print elsewhere.
Pink is obviously important to me. Once someone said to me, "you should make your own paint, so people can buy your specific shade of pink." And I replied, "You can already buy my pink. It's in every painting that I do."
I painted this roll-down gate in downtown and Chuck happened to drive by it. Chuck's assistant had met me at some point I guess, so he reached out to me about doing the wall.
Is there another media medium you'd like to explore? Ever want to make a film? Rock out in a band? Anything?
Heavy Metal music is such a big inspiration for me, I'd love to be in a metal band. I'd want to play drums I think. That makes the most sense to me. But I just don't think that I'm musically inclined. The thought of actually learning how to play does not inspire me one bit. I'll think about it.
I know you collect Japanese vinyl figures/toys/whatevs. Whose art do you collect? Whose art have you paid for?
I haven't traded a whole lot of art. I buy art mostly. People spend money on my art, I'm happy to spend my money on other people's art. I have (paid for) original paintings by Barry McGee, Neckface, Dalek, Andrew Jeffry Wright, Chris Lindig. That's all that comes to mind right now. I have some Takashi Murakami prints that are framed on my wall.
What does a good day look like for you?
What was the first piece of art you ever sold? Do you remember?
The thing that comes to mind is a set of painted spray cans. The first street art I did as Buff Monster was to draw characters on spray cans and nail them up. I also did some nicely painted cans that I did as art pieces. Very early on I met a dude who was a big fan and I sold him several of those painted cans all at once. I think it was like $300 for 4 cans. Something like that. I had really mixed feelings afterward. Happy to have sold some art, but also feeling like I should have gotten more money.
That's still a pretty good haul for your first time selling anything. I'm surprised you didn't sell anything in high school! Or younger. But very cool! You've got an art show opening up at Corey Helford Gallery soon. What about it is different than your last solo show there?
This show I've been able to use all the technical execution exploration of the last show to make some distinctly new pieces. I've always thought that each piece should kind of say it all. I've changed that with this show. Each piece says what it wants so say. Some pieces are really dark and Satanic, some are really bright and happy. There is a lot more variety in this show, and I'm using a few more colors (yellow, green, orange). I hope that people don't think that it's too disorganized. As a whole, I'm really happy with this body of work. And just today, I finished the biggest piece for the show (and also the biggest painting I've ever done). It's 48x48". I'm excited for people to see the new stuff.
Buff's new solo show at Corey Helford will be up until September 26th. Don't miss it!